Day Six–Holy Places, Sinless Muskrats

What a day it has been today: long, rich, interesting, and invigorating–lots of walking outside in beautiful weather. We checked out of our hotel this morning and headed to Kursi [I should have mentioned earlier that all of these sites are national parks]. Again, according to Christian tradition, Kursi is the site of the “miracle of the pigs” [Well, not so miraculous from the pigs’ point of view–it is the story in Luke 8 & Matthew 8, where Jesus exorcises demons from the Gerasene (or “Gadarene, in Matthew) demoniac, and they possess a herd of swine, who then throw themselves into the Sea of Galilee.]. The main thing to see today is an ancient Byzantine monastery–the largest known Byzantine monastery in Israel, which was built in the 5th century CE. From Kursi, we went to Bethsaida [by the way, all of this is still right around the Sea of Galilee–we were on the eastern shore at this point]. Bethsaida was also a pretty quick trip: there are some ruins from an Iron Age gate & palace [roughly 1,000 BCE], and the ruins of what is called the “fisherman’s house” [roughly 1st century CE] because many fishing implements were found there. This is, of course, the hometown of Peter, Andrew & Philip, and a place where Jesus is said to have spend much time during his ministry. Then, we drove to Yardenit, which means “place of the Jordan” in Arabic–this is a very wide place on the Jordan River [southwestern end of the Sea of Galilee] where it is thought perhaps Jesus himself was baptized. As you can imagine, this place has become very commercial, with lots and lots of Jordan water for sale and white Jordan River baptismal garments, among other things [I saw a whole display of individually packaged “cross of thorns,” with a certificate of origin in each. Perhaps a Lenten prop of some sort?!]. And, as you can imagine, there are a handful of special areas where groups can walk down to the riverbank itself and have reaffirmation of baptism services, or actual baptism services. Some are clearly designed for immersion baptisms, and one even had an electric platform, on which you would put a wheelchair. Luckily for us, it wasn’t too crowded, so we had a nice location without a rush; and Jeanette led us in a nice worship service. The whole event affords three theological reflections. First, it isn’t the water that makes the baptism, it is the Word of God; and while I thought the service was very nice, and I know it was very moving for many in our group, I couldn’t help but be alert to the temptation such a locale presents. And, Lutherans aside [or maybe included?!] I wonder how many Christians succumb to the temptation to be baptized again–you know, WHERE JESUS HIMSELF WAS BAPTIZED, as though that really guarantees it will “take.” Lest you think I am making this up, let me quote from one of the signs that is right there on the river, describing how this site matches up with Scripture. Toward the end, it reads, “It doesn’t matter where we are baptised [sic], but the exhortation of being baptised close to where our Lord was baptised is indescribable.” It is this “but” that gives me pause. Instead, there should be a period, a full stop, an end of a paragraph even, before continuing on to acknowledge the feelings one has being here. Those feelings are not wrong or misplaced; what is wrong is the idea that somehow THIS water, THIS place, THIS baptism is better or holier than any baptism performed with any water anyplace in the world. It’s not the water, it’s the Word. Second, looking at all the little vials of Jordan water, and the many, many people who were buying them, I was struck again with by the power religious objects have; and it is no wonder that we cherish those “holy things” we can see and touch, taste and smell, feel and hold. There is a reason why relics of all sorts continue to have such a hold on us, and are so common in so many religions: people need a tangible connection to, tangible reminders of, a God who is immensely majestic, invisible, mysterious and tremendous. Myself, I like talismans, so I am sympathetic to this deep need Christians across time and space have had and continue to have for sacred objects–both usual and outre–that connect them to God somehow: icons, bones of saints, crosses, rosaries, etc. I also am deeply grateful that no relic in the world can compare to receiving Christ himself, every single Sunday, in the bread and the wine, and in the Word. Honestly, I am so very glad to be Lutheran! Third, I can’t help but think that those of us who are blessed to make this trip to Israel and Palestine should be thinking very concretely about how we can be here for the sake of others, and in service to others. I must confess that even though I am loving the trip and am so happy to be here, I am feeling a little guilty that I am seeking Christ here, instead of in the face of my neighbor in need, back at home or anywhere else. Can you imagine all the money that the “Holy Land Pilgrimage” machinery generates? Shouldn’t this money be better spent? But, on the other hand, maybe I’m like Judas, chastising the woman who anointed Jesus with the expensive oil. Maybe I shouldn’t begrudge people the experience, the souvenirs, the tours. But I do know, however, that something is very wrong if we come back somewhat smug, in a gentle but unmistakable way lording it over people who haven’t been, as though, again, our faith is now somehow “deeper” or “stronger” than those who haven’t been. [“What? You haven’t been to Israel? Oh, you must go. It will totally transform your faith.”] If my faith is stronger, it is strong for the good of my brothers and sisters, not for my own benefit. How can I use this trip to strengthen my service in the world? OK–that’s enough of theology for the time being. After the service, as we were walking around, I watched three muskrats swimming–they are so cute–and I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast: here come busloads of Christians from all over the world to be washed clean of their sins in this particular river, and the animals that make their full-time home in this water have no need for forgiveness at all, and I’m sure, wonder what the fuss is all about. After the Jordan River, we went up again–by now you know that is my favorite direction! We went to Belvoir Castle [“beautiful view”], a Crusader Castle that sits 1500 feet above the Jordan valley. It was built in the 12th century, and restored in 1968. We had a little box lunch there, and an hour to wander around. The views were absolutely breathtaking–all the way up and down the valley, to the Golan Heights and the south shore of the Sea of Galilee on the left, and the Bet She’an valley on the right. I really appreciated the time to wander and reflect, because I have another theological issue I am working out in my head! [Alas, it is both a gift and a curse to be a theologian: on the upside, everything has theological ramifications, and it is wonderful to see the world through a theological lens; on the downside, everything has theological ramifications, and I can’t help but see the world through a theological lens.] I am juxtaposing the concept of “liminal places/spaces,” thin places where the vein between the divine and human, between heaven and earth is drawn back; and the incarnation, which, by irrevocably intertwining the “stuff” of God and the “stuff” of creation, has sanctification the entire cosmos. On the one hand, you have the holiness of sacred places, places where we are compelled to take off our shoes, because we find ourselves standing in the presence of God. These are the burning bushes, the high mountains [definitely the high mountains–the sacredness of mountains is attested to in a wide variety of religious traditions, don’t just take my word for it!], the sacred rivers, the forest glens. These are the sanctuaries, the chapels, the altars. But, on the other hand, you have the holiness of everyday life, the reminder that God dwells in and with us everywhere, and that there is no place where one can hide from God’s loving eye, no god-forsaken corner beyond Christ’s redemptive presence. This is the holiness of coffee shops, home-cooked meals, cute dogs, hearth and home. I don’t think it has to be either/or, of course, and I am just thinking how being here somehow reminds me to be deeply grateful for both the special once-in-a-lifetime kind of places I am seeing here, places that have had such meaning for my mothers and fathers in the faith; and also the quotidian blessings I never take for granted: John, Henry, friends and family, my work at the seminary, morning runs on the battlefield, the squirrels in my front yard, and the changing of the seasons. Holiness is both unique and common, sought-after and overlooked, rare and taken for granted. God surrounds us with God’s presence, seeking us, coming to us in as many ways as we know how to look. The world is indeed charged with grandeur of God. OK–are you still reading? Hang with me, I’m almost done! After Belvoir, we made a quick stop at Bet Alpha, the ruins of a 6th century CE synagogue–what was “sehenswert”[a great German word that means “seeing-worthy”] was the large mosaic on the floor. Another beautiful zodiac wheel [The symbols were all reinterpreted by Jews to give them religious significance. My sign, Aries, the ram, was interpreted to represent the lamb going to slaughter.], and a great scene of the sacrifice of Isaac. Finally, we had a long stop at Bet She’an, this AMAZING ancient city that has been continually occupied for 6,000 years [the current city sits overtop a large section of unexcavated ruins]. We walked around outside here [the weather was spectacular again today] for an hour and a half or so–I saw Egyptian hieroglyphs, as well as a marker commemorating the hanging of the bodies of Saul and his 3 sons on the city gates by the Philistines. I also saw a bathhouse from the 1st/2nd century CE, including the remains of a public toilet, with the information that toilet paper consisted of a soft leaf, attached to a twig. Who says humankind hasn’t made progress? Then, it was an almost two hour ride to Jerusalem, where we will be based for the rest of the trip. We passed in and out of Palestine on the way–across several checkpoints, past a herd of camels, and through much more arid land that we have seen thus far. Not a surprise, but still somewhat shocking after days spent in nothing but lush, verdant landscapes.

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